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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

Me, me, me

Elton John

Big disappointment, that Elton John. I’d been expecting his autobiography, Me, to contain a chapter gratefully acknowledging all the people who wrote about him with warmth and enthusiasm in the British music weeklies at a time when he couldn’t get arrested on Denmark Street. I’m thinking of Penny Valentine, Lon Goddard, Caroline Boucher. And, yes… me.

How soon, how completely, they forget.

For the benefit of readers who don’t get British irony: I’m joking. To an extent, anyway. But I interviewed him several times in 1970, his annus mirabilis; the first occasion, on April 7, seems notable in retrospect because he actually made his way by himself to the Melody Maker office on Fleet Street in order to be interviewed. He was that obscure. He was also a nice chap: quiet, seemingly modest and happy to talk about the music he loved, particularly the Band and Robbie Robertson. Later in the summer I bumped into him backstage at a rock festival — it might have been the one in early August at Plumpton racecourse — and after we’d said hello I asked him how things were going. I’ve never forgotten the substance of his reply.

Well, he said, he’d been giving it some thought and he’d decided to make his act more dramatic, more extrovert, more theatrical. More like the Jagger with the Stones, maybe. You know, get some costumes, leap about a bit more. He liked that kind of thing.

I was a bit flabbergasted. I looked at him. He was wearing his usual gear, something completely unobtrusive in that dressed-down environment, maybe jeans and some sort of brown jacket. I might even have said, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” But he was insistent. Heigh ho, I thought. Fair enough, if that’s really what he wants. But it seemed a bit of a shame. It wasn’t really the way the world was going.

Two years later he was at the Hollywood Bowl in an outfit covered in white marabou feathers, taking a stage occupied by five grand pianos whose lids flew open to release dozens of white doves, with an audience going wild. So there we are.

I never saw any of the tours where his love of flamboyance was on full display. In fact the two best Elton John gigs I ever attended were memorable for everything except his own performance. The first of them is something else that doesn’t get a mention in Me.

It was on October 30, 1970 at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, just off Berkeley Square — a Mayfair alternative to the Speakeasy as a late-night hangout for rock musicians on the way up, and also sometimes a place where record companies put on showcase gigs. This night was a double showcase. Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had just returned from their breakthrough in the US, where every star in Hollywood had turned up to see them at the Troubadour. (“Dylan Digs Elton!” was the front-page headline in the Melody Maker — a Ray Coleman special.) They were about to go back the next day, but their record label wanted the British media to see them in their new, confident flowering.

The evening was shared with Randy Newman, brought over by Warner Brothers to promote his second album, the great 12 Songs. By that time I was a lot more interested in Randy Newman than Elton John, so I turned up in a mood of great anticipation. By the time Randy came on the drinks had been flowing for a while and the assembled company — all embroidered denim, satin loon pants and Anello & Davide snakeskin boots — had been tucking into the free canapés. The waitresses were dashing round filling glasses and taking orders. Seated at ringside tables, the audience chattered away.

Randy sidled on to the stage and sat down. He gave no sign of being impressed by the significance of the occasion. He had his owlish glasses on, and his pursed expression, and he seemed to be in the clothes he’d worn on the flight over from LA. He started into his first song without ceremony, and then did another one. I’m pretty sure they were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Lover’s Prayer”. They were wonderful. He hadn’t said a word. But the conversations were still going on, and the waitresses were still circulating busily.

Still without a word, he changed the mood, going back to his first album for “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a song of despair for the human condition. First verse: quiet, intense, spellbinding if you happened to be listening. Still the ringside noise went on. Second verse: “Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles chase love away…” And he lifted his hands from the keyboard, paused for a couple of seconds, very quietly said, “That’s all, folks,” and got up and walked off. Most of the audience barely noticed his departure.

I’ve never admired Randy Newman as much as I did that night. For me, it was a perfectly judged reaction to the environment in which he found himself. Extraordinarily brave, too, in the circumstances. That’s not how a new artist with a major record company behind him is expected to behave when they’ve been flown 5,000 miles for a showcase gig. A little while later Elton and his band were rocking out, getting an ovation from people keen not to be missing out on what looked like being the latest sensation.

Elton owns up to the second memorable gig, at Wembley Stadium on June 21, 1975, a night when he topped the bill but might as well not have turned up at all. On that glorious midsummer’s afternoon the Beach Boys grabbed the sunshine and simply wiped out the headliner. It became a music-business legend how, after their exhilarating surf-ride from one hit to another, Elton’s attempt to present the unfamiliar songs from the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy turned into a catastrophe. Almost from the start the audience were making for the exits like thousands of iron filings drawn by powerful magnets.

Maybe it was a kind of widescreen karmic revenge for the time at the Albert Hall, five years earlier, when he’d done to Sandy Denny and Fotheringay what the Beach Boys did to him. That’s something else he owns up to in Me, which is so expertly ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis, the Guardian‘s chief rock critic, that the reader never pauses to consider that the vividly remembered anecdotes, so amusingly drenched in self-mockery, aren’t coming directly from the man whose name is on the cover.

You’ve probably read the extracts and the reviews, which concentrate — understandably enough — on the vast quantities of coke and sex and some of the dafter things that can happen to a chubby boy from Pinner, like dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” with the Queen of England and having an epic row with Tina Turner. It’s a cracking read on that level alone. But in the final chapters you’ll find a lot of very moving stuff about less exotic subjects: doing the school run, getting treated for cancer, that kind of thing.

I wanted more detail about what was discovered when he subjected his dealings with his longest-serving manager to an independent audit in 1998. I also think it would have been a graceful gesture to have identified the local-paper journalist who tipped him off in 1974 that Watford FC could do with his help, since it led to a period of great personal happiness. And I wish he’d said a bit more about the music, and the musicians who worked with him along the way and never became famous. But that’s just me.

* Me is published by Macmillan.

Steve Howe’s ‘New Frontier’

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I hadn’t heard any of the Steve Howe Trio’s previous albums, so New Frontier, their third release, came as a pleasant surprise. I knew of Steve as the guitarist who took over from Peter Banks in Yes — a band in which my interest diminished as their songs got longer — in 1970, and I knew the trio’s drummer, Dylan Howe, who is Steve’s son and whose album of instrumental versions of David Bowie’s Berlin compositions, Subterranean, I liked a lot on its release five years ago.

The trio is completed by Ross Stanley, a fine keyboards player who is heard here on organ. Guitar-organ-drums trios were a thing in the ’60s: Jimmy Smith, Baby Face Willette, John Patton, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Larry Young were among the organists who made that line-up a favourite format. The guitarist on such albums was often Grant Green, and it’s interesting to discover that a prog-rock guitarist can absorb Green’s spare, bluesy style into his own approach, as he does here on several tracks. There are hints of Wes Montgomery, too, in the occasional burst of octave picking (and Montgomery led a fine organ trio of his own on a couple of Riverside albums).

The result isn’t as heavy and bluesy as some of that music. Stanley doesn’t go for the full Leslie-speaker throb and stays away from the bass pedals, so there’s an airness about the sound, while Dylan Howe has a light, deft touch. Steve Howe varies his tone and effects pleasantly without overdoing it, and uses an acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. All three contribute compositions, as does Bill Bruford, another former Yes man and Dylan Howe’s one-time drum tutor. Sometimes it’s a little bit like early-’70s Santana without the percussion, or Danny Gatton without the absolute authority. But it’s an extremely nice album, and occasionally — as on the lyrical “Western Sun”, co-written by both Howes — rather more than that.

* The Steve Howe Trio’s New Frontier is out now on the Esoteric Antenna label.

Mark Lewisohn’s ‘Hornsey Road’

Abbey Road

When the Guardian ran my interview with Mark Lewisohn about his Abbey Road stage show last week, the piece got 800,000 page views in 24 hours: more than that day’s Brexit coverage, they said. I don’t know what this means, except that the Beatles are still pretty popular. More popular than Brexit, anyway.

Mark had a lot of interesting things to say. What I didn’t have room to discuss in the piece was the use made in the show — which is actually titled Hornsey Road — of the original multitrack tapes, downloadable (astonishing as it may seem) from the video game called Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009. This allows anyone with the necessary equipment to make their own remixes: a dangerous opportunity, but one that Mark has used with care and sensitivity to form part of his two-hour show, which had its first night in Northampton this week and is touring around the country until early December.

I went to a run-through last week, and learnt a lot from his remixes of the original eight-tracks from Olympic, Trident and EMI’s Abbey Road studios between February and August 1969. He brought out a single bar of absolutely sublime McCartney bass-playing on “Because” that I’d never noticed before, ditto the cowbell on “Polythene Pam”. Thanks to him, I was paying closer attention and therefore better able to enjoy the sequence of guitar solos from McCartney, Harrison and Lennon on “The End”: two bars each, then repeat twice. Eighteen quite revealing bars — particularly Lennon’s — in a track that was the last thing they recorded together.

Revisiting Abbey Road was funny for me because it was 50 years ago to the week — on September 10, 1969, in fact — that I’d tipped up at the ICA in the Mall for a screening of several films by John & Yoko, including Two Virgins and Rape. It was a long and gruelling evening, during which an unidentified male and female in a white canvas bag led us all in a chant of “Hare Krishna” that lasted the entire 52 minutes of Yoko’s Film No 5. Was it the Lennons inside the bag? At first we assumed it was. Then we thought, almost certainly not. But it was Bag-ism in action, for sure.

The unexpected treat was a preview of Abbey Road, a couple of weeks ahead of its release. Side one was played in the interval, followed by side two as an accompaniment to John’s film Self Portrait, a 20-minute study of his penis rising and falling. By the time the evening ended, only a handful of the invited audience remained in the theatre.

It was a time when the Beatles — and the Lennons in particular — were in the headlines almost every day. Fleet Street was obsessed with their relationships, their business affairs, their eccentricities. It was also a time when Lennon was happy to sit and talk in the Beatles’ room at Apple HQ at 3 Savile Row, as he did a couple of days later. The following day he was in Toronto for the Live Peace Festival, with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White. On the Monday morning he called me up at the Melody Maker offices to give me the story, and specifically to deny the reports that he and Yoko had been booed off.

“That’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “It was a fantastic show — really unbelievable. It was magical. The band was so funky and we really blew some minds. We only had time to rehearse on the plane going over, and we did things like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy [Miss Lizzy]’, and a new song I’d never played before.” That would have been “Cold Turkey”, which the Beatles were about to turn down as their next single. “Then Yoko joined us,” he continued, “and sang one number [“Don’t Worry Kyoko”] before doing things like our Life with the Lions album. It was incredible because the crowd was howling along with us and they all joined in for ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Everyone was singing — it was like a great big mantra.”

My impression of Lewisohn’s show was that Hornsey Road tells the story in rewarding detail and with a nicely judged sense of how wonderfully absurd the events surrounding the Beatles sometimes were, half a century ago.

* The photograph of the Beatles was taken on the Thames at Twickenham on April 9, 1969 and is from the booklet accompanying the 2009 remastered version of Abbey Road. It is © Apple Corps Ltd.

Punkt 2019

Punkt poster

Kristiansand’s Punkt festival was the brainchild of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, who had the idea of setting up an annual event featuring instant remixes of every performance. The first edition was held in 2005, and last weekend they celebrated their 15th anniversary with three days of music in the festival’s home, a port on the southern coast of Norway, where the faculty of the university includes Bang as professor of electronic music, with Honoré in a less formal role.

This year Punkt’s group of designated remixers also included the trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, the producer Helge Sten and the duo of the drummer Pål Hausken and the keyboardist Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim, who called themselves Elektroshop. At each concert one or two of them could be seen onstage seated at their laptops behind or alongside the performers, who included Trondheim Voices in the Domkirken, the city’s cathedral; Thurston Moore’s four-piece band in a club called Kick Scene; and Kim Myhr’s septet and Rymden, the new trio featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, in the Kilden concert hall on the waterfront.

Immediately after each set the designated remixers would play a set of their own, based on the material they had just recorded. Sometimes they added live instruments: Henriksen’s trumpet and voice, Molvær’s trumpet, Aarset’s guitar, Hausken’s tom-toms and, on one occasion, the voice of Sidsel Endresen. If it wasn’t often easy to detect the salient characteristics of the original material in the remixes, that didn’t seem to matter much.

My favourite example came when Henriksen, Sten and Storløkken — who comprise the long established trio Supersilent — took the thunderous, heavily strummed, highly structured, ecstatic instrumental music created by Moore’s group — with the leader and James Sedwards on electric 12-strings, Deb Googe on six-string bass guitar and Jeb Doulton on drums — and reshaped it into blocks of even more thunderous but harshly fractured noise. During both sets, it was fun to stand behind the conventional mixing desk and watch the decibel meters climbing: peaking above 120dB and inching past an average of 100+. Those who chose to wear earplugs, I felt, lost out on something worthwhile.

Punkt Kim 1

Twenty four hours later, Kim Myhr’s band (above) offered a very different kind of strummed ecstasy while reinterpreting the two long compositions from his 2018 album YOU | ME. Whereas Moore built his chordal symphony on a highly disciplined rock-based, backbeat-driven vision, its transitions strictly defined, Myhr summoned the looser weave of folk music. Just as propulsive but lighter in tone and more subtly textured, the music had a life generated less by the structure of the composition than by the sensation of the individual instruments — the electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars of Myhr, David Stackenäs, Daniel Meyer Grønvold and Adrian Myhr, and the drums and percussion of Tony Buck, Ingar Zach and Michaela Antalová — rubbing up against each other. As far as I was concerned the stretchy 9/4 chordal riff of the second half could have gone on all night, its jangling strings and tinkling bells creating a narcotic momentum and going far beyond the recorded version.

For me, the other big highlights of the weekend were provided by Dark Star Safari, a Nordic-noir prog-rock quartet,  in the Sorlandet art museum and by Trondheim Voices in the cathedral. The concert debut of the former, consisting of Bang (transformed into a lead singer), Aarset, Honoré and the brilliant Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer, was striking enough to send me back to re-investigate their album, released earlier this year.

New ideas on the capacity of the human voice were provided by the nine women of Trondheim Voices, singing “Folklore”, an hour-long composition by Sten and Storløkken (who had prefaced the performance with an extended solo on the pipe organ). Microtonal clusters slid and swerved to thrilling effect and Natali Abrahamson Garner, the latest recruit to this extraordinary group, emerged from the ensemble with a solo passage making staggering use of glottal manipulation. For 40 minutes or so they achieved a transcendent beauty until one of the nine, feeling ill, had to remove herself, requiring the others to react quickly. There were no audible glitches, and they were back at full strength for the closing sequence, but the on-the-fly adustments inevitably disrupted the narrative tension. The release of “Folklore” on the Hubro label later this year will offer a better chance to assess what is obviously a remarkable piece.

Not everything in the weekend worked perfectly. Dai Fujikura’s Symphony for Shamisen and Orchestra, performed by Hidejiro Honjoh and the Kristiansand SO, suffered from an inherent dynamic imbalance between solo instrument and orchestra, I wasn’t moved by the duo of the guitarist Steve Tibbetts and the percussionist Mark Anderson, Rymden had little new to offer, and a set by the Ensemble Modern demonstrated that while classical musicians are better at improvising than they used to be, the demands of free improvisation are better left to specialists. But Punkt is an opportunity to examine various directions in which music is heading and to enjoy the results in sympathetic surroundings. Its ambitions — summed up in Bang’s motto: “If you have some information that is useful, spread it” — have led to projects in more than two dozen other cities around the world, including Shanghai and Montreal, and there will be a three-day Birmingham Punkt Festival, featuring Norwegian and British musicians, next March.

Bang and Honoré, who are both in their early fifties, have worked together since they were teenagers, nurtured by a music-education system that prioritises open-mindedness and in turn passing on the results of their own experiences to an emerging new generation. They can also be very funny. As Bang spoke of their collaboration, he mentioned that in all the years of programming Punkt they have never had an argument. “I’ve been arguing all the time,” Honoré responded. “You just didn’t notice.”

California dreams

 

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There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.

Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.

Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rebirth and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.

Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.

I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.

I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.

Peter Hammill: a story unfolding

 

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The members of Isildurs Bane with Peter Hammill (third from right) in Portugal on May 4.

Of all the major figures associated with the British progressive-rock movement of the early ’70s, Peter Hammill might be the only one still devoting himself to seriously creative new work. A recent eight-CD set called Not Yet Not Now documents his solo tour of 2017-18, demonstrating the richness of his self-composed repertoire (it includes 98 songs) and the undiminished commitment of his performance. But now there’s something perhaps even more extraordinary, a collaboration with the long-established Swedish group Isildurs Bane called In Amazonia, just released on vinyl and CD and given its live première last week at the Gouveia rock festival in Portugal.

Mats Johansson, a member of the band, composed the music and gave it to Hammill, who wrote melodies and lyrics in a process that turned into a proper collaboration. Listening to it the first time, my first thought was that this was how progressive rock should have turned out. The music is characterised by a sense of inquiry and a delight in exploring resources that was present in the early music of a number of prominent bands but soon became drowned by excessive fame and its rewards, while the lyrics strive for the effect of poetry.

It’s dramatic, as this music always hoped to be, employing sudden changes of trajectory to negotiate contrasts between near-bombast and relative tranquillity, but all the time with a care for fine textural details. These include Axel Croné’s bass clarinet, Karin Nakagawa’s koto, Klas Assarsson’s marimba, Luca Calabrese’s trumpet and Liesbeth Lambrtecht’s violin and viola, as well as the guitar of Samuel Hällkvist and the countless timbres provided by the keyboards of Katrin Amsler and Johansson’s synths, including discreet touches of Mellotron and music box.

Hammill responds magnificently to the challenge of becoming the lead singer with a different sort of band, one that employs a more orchestral approach. Whether exposed above a sparse background or absorbed into a densely churning sound-bed, his melodic lines turn at unpredictable angles while insinuating themselves into your memory. His words are typically oblique and allusive, the 10-minute multi-section “This Is Where?” beginning with a brusque declamation: “Open and shut, action and cut, / Story unfolding. / Jungle drum beat, numbers repeat, / River is flowing.” Contemporary unease is a thread running through all the lyrics.

I love this record, for itself as well as for the fact that it arrives at a place where European rock music seemed to be heading when it veered away from American influences 50 years ago. To fulfil some of the promises made so long ago, while, sounding completely fresh and contemporary, is quite an achievement. And Hammill, 70 years old, is still going at full throttle, intensity and creativity undimmed.

* In Amazonia and Not Yet Not Now are out now, on the Ataraxia and Fie! labels respectively. The photograph was taken at the Gouveia festival.

Roxy in the Hall of Fame

Roxy demo

Roxy Music will be among the performers tonight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame opens its arms to the latest group of inductees. No one really needs the validation offered by this much derided and arguably unnecessary institution, but it’s like the Oscars or the Booker: at least it gives you something to argue with.

I suppose Roxy are getting in on the strength of Avalon, the band’s only million-selling album in the US. In their home country, their biggest impact was created — as David Hepworth notes in A Fabulous Creation, his new book about the history of the pop LP — by their debut album, which slid a dagger into the heart of progressive rock and endless boogie in the summer of 1972.

Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera will be there tonight. Brian Eno and Paul Thompson won’t, for various reasons. Nor will Graham Simpson, the original bassist, who left before the first album came out but without whom, as Ferry has said, there would probably never have been a Roxy. Simpson died in 2012; he’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Miranda Little, several years in the making (here is the trailer).

Anyway, just to amuse you, here (pictured above) is the original Roxy demo tape, recorded on May 27, 1971 on Eno’s Ferrograph. Ferry, Simpson, Mackay and Eno were on it, but not Manzanera or Thompson. The guitarist then was Roger Bunn, formerly with Pete Brown’s Piblokto! and Giant Sun Trolley, and the drummer was someone calling himself Dexter Lloyd, a draft-dodging classical percussionist from Chicago whose real name was James Strebing (both would be gone by the end of the summer).

A month later, the demos were dropped off at my flat in Shepherds Bush. “4.30 Brian somebody with tape at home” is the entry in my diary. “Brian somebody” was Ferry. That’s his writing on the box, and his phone number. I just tried calling it, but no one picked up.

Mark Hollis 1955-2019

Music is so often tied to moments or periods in our individual existences that it’s easy to forget it doesn’t always have to be so. The music of Mark Hollis, with his colleagues in Talk Talk and on his one solo album, has no personal significance to me whatsoever. But when I was introduced to it by a friend a few years ago, it made such an impression that it became a part of my life in a different way: tethered not by associations but by its inherent qualities.

Which is not to deny the value of the kind of association based on personal history. When the news of Hollis’s death, at the age of 64, arrived yesterday, it was greeted with a lovely outpouring of emotion from people whose lives he had soundtracked and, to some degree, shaped.

I’m not an expert on his music, and I know very little about its slow-burning effect on musicians of later generations. What I do know is that I’m always moved by its combination of fragile gestures and inner strength, its love of textures, and its feeling for space and silence. Graeme Thomson, writing in the Guardian, used the word “sacred” to describe it, and you can understand why.

Among the things I love on those last three albums (two with the band, one solo) are the raw deep-blues shock of guitar and harmonica on “The Rainbow” and the hymn-like depth of “Wealth” (both from Spirit of Eden), the abstract skronk interlude on “After the Flood” (from Laughing Stock), and the combination of bassoon and harmonica on “Watershed” (from Mark Hollis). But every track on those three albums has something similar: something to make you sigh with admiration at its skewed inevitability or laugh appreciatively at its sheer audacity.

The story of how those albums were made is a pretty harrowing one, involving endless amounts of very expensive studio time and a degree of fastidiousness about sound and nuance — in the use of musicians such as Henry Lowther (trumpet), Martin Ditcham (percussion), the double basses of Danny Thompson and Chris Laurence, and particularly Mark Feltham (harmonica) — that made Walter Becker and Donald Fagen look slapdash. It’s very well told in the later chapters of Are We Still Rolling?, a memoir by their engineer, Phill Brown, whose previous work with Traffic had commended him to the attention of Hollis and the other members of Talk Talk. To me, these albums are the ultimate iteration of the instincts and the method that made Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper. It was a self-indulgent approach, of course, and very destructive in some ways, but it created some masterpieces.

I never met Mark Hollis, but I did know his older brother, Ed, in the ’70s, when I was head of A&R at Island Records. My assistant, Howard Thompson (a much better A&R man than I ever was), signed Eddie and the Hot Rods. Ed was their manager: he was sharp and sparky and we discovered that we could have conversations about the Electric Prunes and Sun Ra and pretty much everything in between and either side. That wasn’t so common back then, and it gave me some idea of the breadth of listening that informed the younger brother’s music and helped, along with his own imagination, to make it so utterly remarkable.

I’ve no idea whether Ed’s self-destruction had anything to do with Mark Hollis’s decision to walk away from music 20 years ago, after the release of his solo album, in order to lead a different life. Anyway, he’d already done his work.

* Phill Brown’s Are We Still Rolling? was published in 2010 by Tape Op Books.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

It was quite enough of a thrill to hear Ry Cooder, having temporarily banished his excellent band, singing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, long a staple of his repertoire, at Cadogan Hall last night. But a couple of minutes in, he took a left turn with some new words:

Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when he took a little trip down to the grocery store / Well, he might have gone on to be President / But that’s something we’ll never know / Because he ran into a vigilante man…

In the handful of seconds that it took to sing those words, the temperature of the room changed. Channeling the menacing throb of one of John Lee Hooker’s talking blues, Cooder sang about the killing of Trayvon Martin and followed the thought into a rap about Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. And the audience went with him, all the way.

Once upon a time, Cooder could fill Hammersmith Odeon eight nights in a row. Enough of us are left to have filled Cadogan Hall at least as many times. This, however, was the only show, and I was lucky to get a ticket at the last moment. And how glad I was to be given the chance to hear him, in his 72nd year, singing and playing and organising musicians with as much zest and enthusiasm as you could wish for.

The band featured his son Joachim on drums, Mark Fain on bass guitar, Sam Gandell on alto and bass saxophones, and three singers known as the Hamiltones, from North Carolina: Toni Lelo, 2E and J. Vito. The material was a combination of old favourites — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Go on Home, Girl”, “Down in the Boondocks”, “Little Sister” — and songs from his new gospel-based album, The Prodigal Son.

That emphasis thrust the singers into the spotlight, and they thrived in it. Their own featured spot included a song called “Highway 74” (with Lelo on Mayfield-style guitar)  that showed them to be in the tradition of groups like the Spinners and the Manhattans. The gospel power was turned to full beam for “99 and a Half” and a gorgeous treatment of Carter Stanley’s “Harbour of Love”, much richer and more resonant than the album version.

Cooder played some fine solos on a number of instruments, including an electric mandolin. He gave several spots to Gandell, who produced a house-wrecking bass sax solo on “The Very Thing That Made You Rich” as well as using a harmoniser and other effects on his alto — its bell muted with a cloth — to provide atmospheric backgrounds.

“See you next time or in heaven, whichever comes first,” Ry said at the end. For the final encore, concluding a two-hour show, he wisely shone the light back on to the singers, inviting them to deliver “I Can’t Win” with an intensity that left the hall drained. As long as there are still people who can sing like that, all is not lost.

* If anyone knows who took the very nice photograph above, which comes from the promotional material, I’ll add a credit.

Peter Hammill’s ‘From the Trees’

PETER_HAMMILL_London_2018_2_photo_credit_James_Sharrock

As skinny as a bread-stick, his white hair cropped almost back to his skull, an outfit of loose white shirt and trousers giving him (somewhat deceptively) the austere, elevated air of a Zen monk, Peter Hammill took the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Friday with only a grand piano and an acoustic guitar for company. He was welcomed by an audience which recognised that at this stage of a 50-year journey that started with the rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, he is one of the few members of his generation who still has something to say.

It’s always intrigued me why, despite its post-war outpouring of great popular music, Britain has produced so few male singer-songwriters to rank alongside Jacques Brel, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Julien Clerc, Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman in terms of maturity, wisdom, observational gifts, craft skills and performing character. I think it’s because so many of the potential candidates came up in bands, and retained that mentality even in their solo careers, continuing to make records that very successfully put a concentration on musical (instrumental) style and content on an equal level with songwriting substance — as David Bowie did, for instance.

There have been exceptions. Paul Buchanan is one. Hammill is another, writing what might be called art songs and recording them in way that pays no attention to anything other than the songs’ demands. On his new album, From the Trees, recorded and mixed by himself at his own West Country studio, he contributes all the instruments (keyboards, guitars, bass guitar) and vocals (lead and backing), deploying his resources with fastidious restraint. There’s an exact understanding of what is needed at all times and an instinct for diversity, from the wonky minuet of “Reputation” and the pensive chorale of “What Lies Ahead” to the opening synth cloud and swooning clustered voices of “On Deaf Ears”, the folk-rocky electric guitar of “My Unintended” and the chiding Greek chorus of “Anagnorisis”.

Each lyric repays attention: literate, plain-spoken even when taking an oblique approach, never remotely pretentious (I had to look up “anagnorisis”, but was glad I’d bothered). The degree of autobiographical essence doesn’t matter, although the songs have the stamp of felt emotions, of a man addressing his own doubts and imperfections, his own perceptions of fate and mortality. I might be forgiven for following the clue in the title of “Girl to the North Country” towards the inevitable conclusion that this poignant song was inspired by Bob Dylan and his early muse, Echo Hellstrom, whose death was reported back in January.

The best of all comes last: “The Descent”, a work of quiet but intense drama dealing, I think, with the long-term consequences of auspicious beginnings and missed chances (or possibly something else altogether). But, anyway, it’s a thing of great elegance and beauty, its verses alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4 to build tension before the cadence of the line smoothes out, with a strong vocal flighted in its finished studio version on piano, organ and Mellotron-like sampled strings. Correctly placed in the running order, it resonates long after the music has stopped.

At the newly refurbished QEH, Hammill ranged through the repertoire assembled through his long career, moving from piano to guitar and back, with great care taken at the mixing desk to enhance the immediacy of the sound of both instruments. His singing was highly wrought in its changes of volume and attack, as it used to be with VDGG, and well tailored to each song. Circumstances meant that I could only stay of an hour, but of the older material I was particularly struck by “Like Veronica” (from None of the Above, 2000), possibly inspired by the abused Kim Basinger character in Curtis Hanson’s movie of James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential (“Wear your hair like Veronica Lake / And the bruises won’t show where he hit you”: the brutality of the lyric matched by the delivery). And most of all by an exquisite “Time to Burn” (from In a Foreign Town, 1988), a meditation on temps perdu much stronger for being shorn of the trappings of its original arrangement.

“The world has gone IKEA,” Hammill told Nick Hasted in an interview for the Independent in 2004, “and I’m a bespoke furniture maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me.” They’re the lucky ones.

* The photograph of Peter Hammill is by James Sharrock. From the Trees is released on Hammill’s own label, Fie! (www.sofasound.com).